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William Oliver's

The Rules of Hanging Out

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: March 31, 2000
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

The Violent Social World of Black Men

Review Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata

Part of Teaching Series
Copyright: March 2000, Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
"Fair Use" encouraged.

Source: William Oliver, The Violent Social World of Black Men. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1994. ISBN: 0-7879-4305-3. Jeanne has the book, if you want to see a more extensive passage. Wisconsin students e-mail for the elaboration you seek (cc Susan).


This is a fascinating study on black men and violence, specifically focussed on those who "hang out" in local bars, and with particular emphasis on young men, up to about age 25. When I ordered the book over a year ago, I did so expecting a more general study. Upon discovering the focus, I put the book aside until now.

Our present focus on structural violence and personal responses to that violence led me to review the book once again for sharing with you. William Oliver's "Reflections on Black Manhood," at p. 81 in Images of Color, Images of Crime, was what first led me to his work. I am particularly interested in your comparing the methodology and conclusions that can be drawn from Rose and McClain's study of black homicide to the methodology and conclusions of Oliver's study. Please read with that orientation.

Situation-Centered, Symbolic-Interactionist Approach

First, William Oliver takes an approach he calls "process-oriented," "situation-centered," or "symbolic-interactionist." These terms describe a social-psychological orientation, in which local narrative and local social context play a major part. Oliver contrasts this to the more typical "socidemographic characteristics . . . of violent offenders and their victims" and with "the alleged personality traits of violent offenders." I understand this to mean that Oliver actually went into the field, the bars in this instance, and interviewed the men of this study. He asked them to give their perception of their own violence. This is an important part of listening in good faith, creating a situation in which the person you are studying is made comfortable, is aware of your qualifications, and is given an opportunity to be heard on the issue.

Contrasted with Rose and McClain's Demographic, Ecological Approach

Contrast Oliver's approach with Rose and McClain's. They relied on demographics for SMSAs, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas, and on broadly-based economic data. In their explanation of the ecological approach, they note the importance of the socialpsychological data to provide a complete picture. Both of these books present research carried out in the eighties, with publication in the nineties. That would suggest that much may have changed in the intervening years.

Time Lag in Publishing

Time lag is one of the primary concerns with hardcopy publishing. Time lag enters the process both from the author's need to find a publisher, and from the publishing process, which requires considerable time and marketing to get a new book to the attention of the academic community. Be aware of this time lag, particularly on social issues that are undergoing rapid change, like welfare changes, like violence studies. Look not just for the publication date, but also for the dates of the research itself. Notice also how the research was funded. Funding is one factor, though only one, in the quality of research control that can be afforded. That should certainly affect our trust in the results.

Care to Get Around the Limitations of Funding

Oliver's research was done for his doctoral dissertation. (Acknowledgments, p. xiii) He had a grant to pay for the transcription of his tape-recorded interviews. When you can think of data you wish he had pursued further, or of different avenues you wish he had looked into, please bear in mind that funding was probably not available for such luxuries. A doctoral student patches together what he can. In this instance, Oliver spent considerable time in creating an interview climate in which he could trust the the willingness of his respondents to talk to him and trust him. That should also affect our trust in his results.

Our Initial Responses
from Perspective of Structural Violence

Not everyone has Oliver's book. This review essay is intended to give you an overview of the work. Our first discussions of the work have been first impressions based on an oral report, within the context of our concerns with structural violence. As we go through a more formal overview, we will revise these first impressions.

First, we should explain structural violence as it pertains to our discussions of juvenile justice.

Structural Violence Compared to Violence

Structural violence, as opposed to personal violence, is violence that is not planned or aimed at any individual or group of individuals. That doesn't mean it isn't violent. It is. It harms; it hurts, in a way that feels very personal, for the harm and the hurt are personal. But the violence is produced by structural means that do not take the person harmed into account. That is, the harm comes about as the result of the structural system, of rules and categories set up to run our institutions, take care of most of the people most of the time, by placing them into categories, and then setting up ways of handling those categories. The harm comes about when the categories don't fit, when some people discover that they weren't taken into account when the categories were set up.

Consider the telephone. Have you tried to call a corporate enterprise or an institution lately? First, you don't get a real person. You get a list of choices. If you fit the choices, select one. You have a chance at success. But if you don't fit the choices, try getting hold of a real person to direct you. Some organizations still let you wait for an operator. But many don't. Pick one of the choices, or you're out on first. If your call is about a crisis, you are left angry and frustrated. Structural violence. No one meant to harm you. No one even knows of your existence. You're just a caller who can't be categorized in available choices. The structure is handling most people, in the categories that cover most people. So a university sends you to admissions and records, or the book store, or the advising center, or parking, and if what you need is the phone number for the Saber Tooth Tiger Catching Department, sorry. That's not one of the categories most people call for.

Why do they do this to you? "They" don't. Someone programmed the phone categories. You don't fit. You fall through the cracks. Stanley Salas reminded us last semester that some people jump through the cracks. That's true. But most of us fall through, and are mightily indignant about th fall. It's hard for us to realize that there is no perpetrator. There are just cracks in the system. And those cracks are particularly dangerous for those who were not a party to the creation of the system. Thus, in this day of automation, the effects of exclusion are escalated through categorization, in an attempt to deal with ever larger numbers of students, of patients, of custormers.

The Rules of Hanging Out